By Elena Shao
The night my uncle dies, I am 8,000 miles away.
My grandparents didn’t tell my dad and my mom and my brother and me for a while, even though we phoned them every few weeks. Instead, I found out 100 days later, on the last day of the traditional Chinese mourning period, after I landed in Shanghai and he didn’t pick us up from the airport, after we passed plates over his mysteriously empty dinner seat, after I walked in his room to see his picture surrounded by incense and ghost money and offerings of fruit.
Like many others, the violence and racism against people in Asian communities over the past weeks have made it difficult for me to focus. Twitter puts the video of a man pummeling a 65-year-old Asian woman on her way to church next to a post from “no context parks and rec” next to highlights from an Atlanta Hawks game next to someone’s “personal news” announcement. There are 10,000 things that upset me in a day. The email I get from the University after the Atlanta shooting, which features the same boilerplate language it uses each time there’s a localized tragedy affecting a subset of the student population. The realization that my Asianness was more of an existential issue than I’d ever considered before. My own inability to reconcile anti-Black sentiments in the Asian community with #StopAsianHate activism.
I think about these things, and a lot more. But mostly I think about the rest of my family in China, and, oddly, I think about my uncle for the first time after years of trying to forget.
My family was supposed to make a journey to the United States this year for the first time ever. My cousin, a huge NBA fan, wanted me to take him to a basketball game. My aunts and uncles had been saving up for the plane tickets and expensive American food. My grandparents on my father’s side, Ye Ye and Nai Nai, struggle now to buy daily groceries in the markets but couldn’t wait to brave a sixteen hour flight. My brother and I were going to be graduating this summer, him from high school in Georgia and me from Stanford, and they wanted to be there.
My excitement for them to see me graduate was actually a new sort of feeling. Throughout high school, I would hide the invitations I received to various award nights and milestone celebrations from my mom and my dad. “No one else’s parents are going,” I’d tell them. There were dinner events where I’d sit at a table with other students and their parents, mine noticeably absent from my side. My parents wanted to be there, and it was only my fault that they weren’t.
I did this successfully for four years, until I was met with a final challenge: high school graduation. It was unavoidable. They, of course, wanted to attend, and any reason I could come up with for why my own parents shouldn’t be at their only daughter’s high school graduation would sound absurd. I could have told them the truth, if I knew it, but at the time I couldn’t even figure out why I tried so hard to be alone at all of the important moments of my life.
When our principal called my name, when I made my way on stage to accept my diploma, I learned why. The relative quiet probably wasn’t obvious to anyone else, but it was painfully so for me. Next to the thunderous and enthusiastic cheers and clapping my classmates got from their relatives in the stands, my family — of just my mom, my dad and my brother — seemed so, so small.
I wished I felt differently. I wish the only thing that mattered to me was how hard my parents were trying, or that I didn’t care that the smallness of our family was another thing that made us different from everyone else.
But instead I hated that that smallness isolated us. What’s worse is that feeling a sense of unbelonging as a Chinese family in an American neighborhood didn’t hurt nearly as much as the feeling of separation from my family in China. The four of us never stood a chance against our layers and layers of relatives who could see each other daily, could talk to each other without having to add 12 hours of time difference. At best, they felt to me like acquaintances. At worst, we were an occasional afterthought. They didn’t even tell us when my uncle died, and together, they moved on without us.
So I felt that being alone on that graduation stage would have been less embarrassing than putting that smallness on display — that it was a choice I made for myself, and not something I had no control over.
My college graduation would be different. When we started to make plans for their trip to America, I was thrilled. My family in China could come into my life; I didn’t have to feel like I was intruding on theirs. More importantly I was relieved that my brother’s high school graduation would be different from mine. Bigger.
The pandemic changed those plans, obviously. In the beginning, I remember trying to calculate the next milestone they’d be able to make. Then, I started to worry more that my grandparents, in their old age, wouldn’t make it that far.
But over the past few weeks, I’ve decided that it’s good that my grandparents and the rest of my relatives don’t live here. The smallness means there’s fewer people to worry about. Selfishly, I learn about the unrelenting and ruthless attacks against people of Asian descent, who have been called slurs, verbally harangued, spit on, shoved, kicked, beaten and killed, whose homes and businesses have been vandalized — and my pain grows roots of relief.
This is the trade I’m okay with now — I get to see my family for a couple of weeks every couple of years, and they don’t have to suffer evils like these.
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